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"Readers often seek their mirrors in books:" Building an Illustrated Children's Book Collection with the Community

Posted on by Gina Pambianchi

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Rudine Sims Bishop

In partnership with the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), the Penn Libraries Community Engagement team has been working for the past six years on efforts to reopen school libraries in the School District of Philadelphia. This is just one of the many ways that this department collaborates with community-based organizations in Philadelphia to promote literacy beyond the classroom. In the process of cataloging books for school libraries and working with elementary school students to select titles, our team of sixteen University of Pennsylvania students has learned about the many ways that illustrated children’s literature can serve as a tool for addressing issues of injustice and centering community voices. These efforts led us to develop the “Mirrors Collection,” a list of illustrated children’s books chosen and reviewed especially for these libraries and their diverse student populations. This curated collection will help inform school library collection development efforts and will remain responsive to changing curriculums and school needs.

With the help of a community of educators, librarians, authors, and illustrators, Penn students select the books for the Mirrors Collection that reflect important themes like social justice, health literacy, and emotional literacy. Our priority is to showcase books with unique voices that allow us to see ourselves reflected, inspire us to develop empathy and understanding for others, and comfort us when we feel alone. The books in the Mirrors Collection highlight students’ lived experiences and often cover topics they wish they had had the opportunity to read about when they were children. To close out the school year, five seniors and one graduate student from the Community Engagement team chose one or two books from the Mirrors Collection that they would want every public school library to have and every student to read. Our hope is to make sure that all our partner schools have these selections in their school libraries. Here are their recommendations.

  • ­­­Anya Goes to Nigeria by FungChung M Nikko and Takashi Fuuji
    Wilnaphekie Taloute: Not many public schools have children’s stories that can help kids imagine being in Nigeria. Anya Goes to Nigeria (part of the fun “Anya’s Wold Adventures” book series) teaches students about the country’s languages, climate, cities, culture, games, and fashion. I have always wanted to visit Nigeria, but so far have only been able to experience it through movies and by speaking to Nigerian friends, so it was very refreshing to travel vicariously through Anya. I have no doubt that my younger self would have loved reading it.
  • Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora
    Gabrielle Morales: While the book does have a protagonist, it is centered in community. Its title character, Omu, models what it means to care for and grow a community through her generosity, selflessness, and eagerness to fill empty bellies.
  • Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
    Charlene Ngige: Black children (especially Black girls) often grow up hating their dark skin because of bullying, depictions in the media, and reactions from the people around them. I connect with Sulwe because I was one of those Black girls. It’s so important to affirm dark-skinned girls at a very young age because it will have a significant impact on their self-esteem and confidence as they grow up.
  • A Likkle Miss Lou: How Jamaican Poet Louise Bennett Coverley Found Her Voice by Nadia Hohn & Eugenie Fernandes
    Brianna Hatfield: I was elated when I discovered this book because I’m a second generation Jamaican and have always looked for ways to connect with my culture. I loved the fact that the book focuses on a cultural icon, the poet Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley. I didn’t know much about Miss Lou growing up, but I did remember hearing her name now and again. I really enjoyed the experience of learning about her through the book. Miss Lou was an influential cultural ambassador and this book is a beautiful ode to her and the beauty of language. I also appreciate the glossary of Patois words, which makes the book more accessible to those who may not be familiar with our culture and language.
  • Imani’s Moon by Janay Brown-Wood and Hazel Mitchell
    Brianna Hatfield: As I read this book, I could picture my childhood self listening along and soaking up the story. The feel of the story reminded me of storytelling time as a kid and folktales about characters like Anansi. There is a strong message about determination, perseverance, and believing in yourself. Oftentimes, the hurtful words of others can make us doubt ourselves, and Imani reminds us to block out the cruelty of others and remain focused on our dreams.
  • I am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo
    Biruktawit Tibebe: I think a lot of people struggle not to compare themselves to others. This book encourages self-acceptance and self-love and is very powerful for children to read. I especially love the line "I'm not meant to be like you, you're not meant to be like me."
  • Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua
    Similoluwa O Ayinde: Amy and the Perfect Bao explores themes like family, tradition, food, perseverance and changing perspectives. I connect with the book because like Amy, I am close to my family and love having them around. One way my family bonds is through cooking. At home, we cook a lot of traditional meals, particularly on special occasions, and I remember being a little girl and wanting to help. Sometimes I struggled because I was not tall enough, didn't quite understand the flavors, or didn't have big enough hands. But just like Amy, I learned to help and sometimes thought of new ways to cook dishes in a way that I could at the time.
  • Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and Jaime Kim
    Similoluwa O Ayinde: This book explains why the question “Where are you really from?” is so difficult to hear.  Questions like this suggest that the questioner does not believe you are really from the place you said you were, which can be quite offensive. Where Are You From also encourages us to think more broadly about where we are from. It’s more than just a location; it is about traditions, family, and where your heart belongs.

Want to purchase one of the these books for our local school libraries? You can see the full list here. Please send donations to:

Gina Pambianchi
Community Engagement
3420 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104


Gina Pambianchi is the Penn Libraries' Community Engagement Librarian and leader of the Community Engagement team. 

Similoluwa Ayindea is a senior majoring in Marketing and Organizational Management.

Brianna Hatfield is a senior majoring in Multinational Management and Retailing. 

Gabrielle Morales is a Master’s degree candidate in the Graduate School of Education focusing on reading, writing, and literacy. 

Charlene Ngige is a senior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.

Wilnaphekie Taloutea is a senior majoring in Africana Studies and Sociology.

Biruktawit Tibebe is a senior majoring in Health and Societies. 

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